The Color of My Character

I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I heard it differently this year.

I had once heard this famous line from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” as a call to a colorblind world.  I believed the dream had been realized by the time I had come of age in the 1990s.  In some mythic and bygone past, black people were judged by the color of their skin, but by the time I had first heard of King’s dream, we whites, despite a very few bad seeds and mentally-ill outliers, judged blacks by the content of their character.

Read this way, the line becomes a source of comfort for whites who wish to believe we have overcome racism.  This interpretation reflects our rush to claim victory over discrimination, which only underscores white ignorance of past and present black experiences.  Complicated and discomforting racial realities do not abide.

I abandoned such a myopic reading of King’s line, and began to hear the line as an admonishment against white supremacy, as a perpetual call for white people to move beyond our deeply-ingrained racism.  I heard it as the shattering of our naiveté.  Yes, people of color have been and still are judged by the color of their skin, and I must get educated about how they experience the world and how my actions and non-actions create barriers for them.  Pushing beyond the immaturity of the first interpretation, this reading urges whites to take responsibility for our implicit, systemic racist judgments.

Both readings, however, share a tacit assumption: they—that is, people of color—were/are the ones sadly being judged by the color of their skin and not by the content of their character.

But I heard it differently this year.

For the first time, I understood that I, too, have been and am being judged by the color of my skin.  For far too long, I have been judged by the color of my skin rather than by the content of my character—because the color of my skin has passed for the content of my character.  In innumerable settings and circumstances, in ways small and large, I have been assumed to be trustworthy and good simply because I am white.  I have been deemed a nice person, just by showing up in my skin.

I recently obtained my medical chart and noticed a doctor’s note that described me as “pleasant.”  This gave me pause.  I wondered how relevant pleasantness was to an appointment pertaining to migraines, and how this positive perception positively flavored my care.  Essayist Eula Biss writes, “I know what it means when my landlady tells me, as I’m applying for a lease, that she won’t need my bank account number because I look like a ‘nice’ person.”  Like Biss, I am aware of the euphemistic nature of “nice” and its synonyms like “pleasant.”  My whiteness often produces an expectation of comradery with those in power.  Authority figures exude ease toward me, which elicits an ease on my part, too—creating a mutually-enforcing circle of niceness.

One December evening, close to midnight, my husband and I walked home from a friend’s house when a police car pulled up to us.  “Are you all okay?” the officer asked. “Oh, yes.  We’re just walking home,” I replied.  “Do you need a ride?  It’s awfully cold out,” he said with a smile.  We politely declined.  A half-mile to the east, in a historically black neighborhood, one of our friends suffered insomnia and went for a stroll a little after midnight down the sidewalk by his house.  Cop cars with blaring sirens and flashing lights surrounded him, one officer spotlighted him and another barked for him to raise his hands.

I have not been spotlighted on nighttime strolls, or tracked in stores, or denied housing or employment —not because people and institutions have examined the content of my character, but because they have reacted favorably to my skin, believing its color indicates sound character.  My white ancestors were also deemed trustworthy and good—not only in social settings but also under the formal structures of the law—simply because of their whiteness.  As a reward for their pigmentation, they received loans to buy houses and land, attended properly-funded schools, gained entrance to colleges, voted in elections and held public office, applied to and received any number of jobs, and even enjoyed superior seating in theaters, churches, and trains.  Even my most disadvantaged white ancestors, at the very least, lived free from the persistent psychic and physical threat of lynching, fire bombs, and burning crosses.

Through no hard work of their own, through no test of virtue, my kin were granted rights and given opportunities merely for being white.   Whatever advantages (and there are plenty) I have received from the properties and positions of previous generations, have come to me, in no small part, because of the color of my family’s skin and not the content of their character.  This fact should infuriate the rural conservatives of my childhood who disdained “free rides.”  What could be more of a free ride than receiving—without compunction or redress—the unmerited advantages of generational privilege?

For too long, being white and especially white of a particular class, has allowed me to pass for being decent.  That we still seem shocked when drug problems, gun violence, or sexual exploitation are uncovered in white schools and neighborhoods, speaks to the underlying assumption that white people and places are presumably nice people and places.  For too long, I have assumed that my warm—or, at least, frictionless—reception nearly everywhere I go, from the grocery store to the doctor’s office to job interviews, has simply reflected my good character.  I have assumed that others have accurately, if rather automatically, judged me.

The social ease one experiences as a white person can reinforce the idea that the world is generally a friendly place that rewards good people.  When people of color tell us over and over that they do not experience this same smoothness, we assume it has to do with them—for how can a world so soft on us be so hard on others?  We assume their struggle has to do with their poor character, not ours.  We assume the dissonance they experience has little to do with the color of their skin, just as our congruence has little to do with ours.  A comfortable beneficiary of this state of affairs, I have been unable or unwilling to see what was right before my pale face—how deeply my color has formed my character.  My free movement, my easy access, my ample opportunities, my open interactions have tricked me into confusing societal privilege for personal virtues.  The gig is up: it’s been the color of my skin all along.

Once the veil is peeled back for whites, we are faced with the long-neglected task of assessing the damage and actually developing some depth of character.  Simply “going with the flow” has been our de facto moral disposition—because “the flow” in a white-friendly world has favored us.  Our character formation is marred by denial and passivity: to go with the flow one must never rock the boat.  Denial and passivity breed in us apathy and cowardice in the face of personal and political injustices.  No wonder flight is such an automatic response for whites when we face obstacles that impede our easy flow.  Not only do we flee from cities, neighborhoods, and schools that feel threatening, but we also run from any transparent discussion or redress of generational problems in our own communities and families: sexual abuse, drug addiction, domestic violence, suicide, and mental illness.  Our moral docility damages us.

To be sure, not all white lives are easy, or the same, or without difficult moral choices made well, or devoid of courageous acts.  But, by and large, white people in America have not reckoned head-on with our ugly and persistent history of racial superiority, and our ongoing uses and abuses of power that spring from this past.  And this willful evasion has made us as a people fragile, defensive, and childish.  We have not stuck out our necks, with any consistency, for vulnerable others; we have not considered solidarity in community as indispensable for our very survival; we have not struggled for justice at every turn.  Educated to silence and to guard our own private comfort, we “go along to get along,” which feeds the illusion that we are peaceable and even honorable, when in fact we are merely agreeable and conventional.  Is it any wonder, with such a thin moral grounding, so many whites endlessly search for what is missing in our otherwise “successful” lives, eventually lapsing into quiet despair?  Is it any surprise that we recoil at any critique of our way of life and retreat further into our white schools, homes, and churches?

If we decide to purge ourselves of the passivity, denial, and the accompanying ease (although I question how “easy” such self-delusion is), if we decide to interrogate the bogus privileges that come with the color of our skin, then we will need to develop what we sorely lack: a substantial conscience and moral courage.  What once passed for character under our white-blindness—“apolitical” pleasantness made possible by the world’s ready embrace—must be abandoned in favor of struggle, fitful nights, and sacrifice.  Character is formed here—in the crucible of resistance, in listening to those who have always known the toxicity of white American hypocrisy, and in forging community with those who have always known the depth of racism.

A recent Vanity Fair article featured Timothy Tyson, author of The Blood of Emmett Till, which sheds new light on Till’s 1955 murder.  On a visit to relatives in the south, fourteen-year-old Till was brutally beaten and shot after he allegedly whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham.  Donham’s husband Roy Bryant, one of Till’s killers, was acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury—in part due to Donham’s testimony, which she later admitted was false.  Tyson gained unique access to Donham (now 82) who, for the first time, agreed to be interviewed.  Although she has never apologized for what happened, Donham told Tyson she “felt tender sorrow for Mamie Till-Mobley,” Emmett’s mother.  Vanity Fair says this admission “does sound, in its way, like late-blooming regret.”

“But tender sorrow is not justice,” my ministry colleague retorted in his Wednesday night sermon, the week the article appeared.  The predominantly African American congregation immediately and forcefully agreed, “Amen!  Amen!”  They had likely heard claims of white pity their whole lives—pity that never turned to policy, or protest, or true understanding.

Donham’s response is so incredibly known to me, so terribly familiar.  In white character formation, sympathy—a kind of private pity—serves to discharge moral debt.  How many times I’ve walked the streets of my city with white visitors (usually conservative, evangelical) and heard their tender words of sorrow toward the people (often black) sleeping on the street.  They grab their chests, turn a frown, and offer some sentiment like, I hope I’d never get used to seeing that; how sad; that just tears my heart out.  These tender feelings and doleful utterances rarely, if ever, translate to any understanding of poverty, any work for justice, or any serious self-examination.  How their politics—say, voting for war and against affordable healthcare—impact the poor falls under no conviction.  But they possess “tender sorrow” for the half-dressed man sleeping on the street grate.

Central to character formation steeped in white fragility is the belief that possessing certain feelings—like disbelief or sadness or worry—passes for a moral good in itself.  That we have pained ourselves to endure uncomfortable feelings, even for a moment, we take as a sign of character.  The problem is not tender feelings—it is that they are stillborn.  They never mature into adulthood, into focused study or action, into sustained introspection, into serious connection with communities of color.  We must disabuse ourselves of the notion that our feelings of “concern,” no matter how sincere, carry moral heft.

When whites do emerge from what James Baldwin so aptly calls “emotional kindergarten,” it is usually through substantive engagement with non-white others and the struggle for justice.  Exemplars of character who are white (say, a Dorothy Day or Daniel Berrigan) develop courage and virtue in and with communities of struggle and resistance.  Prioritizing relationships with persons on the margins, they engage long, committed journeys out of moral inertia, ease, and denial.  In other words, they develop courage and virtue despite, not because of, their whiteness.

To graduate from emotional kindergarten, we must shed our paltry need for quick fixes.  There are no fast remedies for our anemic spirits.  Day by day, we must doggedly build up our toleration for tension and complexity.  And we must snuff out every noxious vapor of white supremacy, rather than cling to the nefarious notion that we do not have a whiff of it within us.

It is time to judge ourselves by a higher standard.  When whites wish to take seriously the stunted and malformed content of our own character, we must first confess the ways in which we have allowed the color of our skin to do the work of character for us.  “We make ourselves real by telling the truth,” writes Thomas Merton.  When we reject the self-deception inherent to white denial and finally tell the truth, then perhaps we can have a prayer of making ourselves real—of being something more than our color.

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Lynn Casteel Harper is a Baptist minister on the staff at The Riverside Church in the City of New York. Her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Kenyon Review Online, North American Review, Catapult, and elsewhere. She received the New Delta Review’s 2013 Nonfiction Prize and a Pushcart Prize nomination.  She was named runner-up for the Torch Prize (2016) and Jelly Bucket’s Editor’s Prize for Prose (2017).  She is currently completing a book of essays, When I Have Dementia, which received a Barbara Deming Fund grant for women writers.   

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